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The Bar, the Friends, the Voice, the Stage:
Chus Martinez on Stand-up Comedy and the Frankfurter Kunstverein's Project for Frieze

For American stand-up comedians in the 1960s such as Lenny Bruce, comedy could be a political weapon. Now with "A Delicious Feeling of Confidence," the Frankfurt Kunstverein has transported this idea to the present day - as an artistic strategy. On each day of the Frieze art fair, a program will be presented on a specialyl designed stage combining humor, politics, film, and performance. But how political can artists be as entertainers? Oliver Koerner von Gustorf talked with Chuz Martinez, the director of the Frankfurt Kunstverein, about the Deutche Bank-sponsored project.

Chuz Martinez, director of the Frankfurter Kunstvereins,
Photo courtesy

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: How did the whole idea of "A Delicious Feeling of Confidence" arise?

Chus Martinez: It all started with a conversation with the artist Dora Garcia about the complicated relationship that contemporary art seems to establish with its audience. We thought about whether there were models or situations in which the relationship between artist and public is just as difficult, but that can be seen in entertaining ways. And suddenly Lenny Bruce came to mind, someone we both adore. Bruce used to insult his audience; he said things like "I'm gonna piss on you," he cracked jokes about the Ku-Klux-Klan and abortion, but people still thought it was incredibly funny. I find it very interesting how he used stand-up comedy as a medium for what was essentially a very political language.
But there's also another aspect to stand-up comedy that fascinates me - the fact of its being a situation in which a person is standing more or less alone on stage. And this person has to create a kind of faith. You know, if you really like a comedian, you go to a place just to see him. You don't need fancy costumes or an orchestra or anything. You go to a bar to meet some friends. You have a drink and sit there, and then you listen. Just think about Seinfeld, for example. Jerry Seinfeld's sitcom represents the typical stand-up routine. It's all there: the bar, the friends, the voice, the stage. It makes you wish there were people with the same kind of routine in contemporary art - that people could come to see an artist, sit down, and say to themselves: "let's see what he or she throws at me tonight."

Policeman searching comic Lenny Bruce after his being
arrested for allegedly obscene language, San Francisco, 1961
© Bettmann/Corbis

The idea of working with the format of stand-up comedy arose three years ago when the Frieze Foundation invited me to participate with a project for the art fair. I was still working in Bilbao at the time. I was always thinking about what it means, exactly, to be present at an art fair as an institution. Even if the Frankfurter Kunstverein is non-commercial, and maintains a distance to the art market, there is no such a thing as being "outside" the marketplace. On the one hand, through our program we propose a critical counter-voice and working strategies that intend to surpass the economy of the spectacle. On the other, by accepting the invitation of Frieze, we inevitably become part of the fair. And so it seemed appropriate to the situation to use the model of stand-up comedy to ironically twist a surrounding that makes us feel a bit like stand-up comedians ourselves. We present artists as entertainers on a small scale, like stand-up comedians. But in reality, they aren't entertainers, of course. We believe we can change the world, even if we don't have the recipe yet. But we keep on trying. If nothing else, then at least we'll provide some entertainment.

Tobias Putrih, Venetian, Atmospheric, 2007
52nd Venice Biennale, Slovenian Pavilion
Photo Michele Lamanna, Courtesy the artist/Max Protetch Gallery, New York

Is there a provocative message behind the project?

We want to invite people to think about the fact that political opposition can have many voices, many methods of operation. Lenny Bruce stands for political awareness. He was an ambiguous, critical voice. His method was effective: he used his stand-up routine to attack the politics of Eisenhower and Johnson, American Puritanism, the narrow-minded ideas of religion, race, and society. And I think especially now, during the era of the Bush administration, it feels like a good time to reclaim an American voice as critical as Bruce's was. This doesn't mean lapsing into mindless Anti-Americanism. Lenny Bruce was an American institution, even when he disagreed with what was going on in his country.

Tobias Putrih, Sketch fort he auditorium at Frieze Art Fair, 2007,
Courtesy Frankfurter Kunstverein

So what will the audience experience at the Frieze Art Fair? Could you describe the stage that Tobias Putrih is building for the event?

The Frankfurter Kunstverein was invited as an independent institution; now it was our turn to invite. So we thought about Tobias Putrih, a New York-based Slovenian artist who creates sculptural structures and environments that can be used by the audience, that have a social function. We corresponded back and forth with him to develop an adequate setting. In the end, he designed a tribune that faces a round stage. The construction is made of wood, cardboard and scaffolding poles, with four large "arms" to carry the lighting system, almost like a tiny football stadium. At the same time, it resembles an artificial animal, some kind of robot or metal "transformer" that embraces the stage from above. Visitors can sit down on the tribune, and there will be a cinema space inside the tribune for them to watch films. The installation will have a rough, industrial look. Tobias Putrih's ephemeral architecture is complex in structure, but at the same time it looks very low-tech, very "handmade." It suggests that anybody could make it; it also represents a highly economical way to use common materials. All in all, we invited four artists to be "curators of the day." Each of them has a day to activate that stage.

Dora Garcia, It it not the past, but the future, that determines the present.,
from the: "Golden Sentence Series", 2001,
installation view Frankfurter Kunstverein, 2007,
Photo: Jonas Leihener

And they also put together the film program?

They suggest films for the program. The project is a collaboration between myself as the project's initiator, the co-curators Katja Schröder and Tobias Meyer, and the four artists. We've developed a very funny dialogue in the course of viewing films and searching for new material. The first artist that came to mind was Dora Garcia, because we'd had that initial conversation about the project. On the first day of the program, Dora will be launching the project with an homage to Lenny Bruce, whose discursive humor goes together well with Garcia's conceptual practice, which is dry and intelligent, linguistic in a sense. An actor will read Bruce's stand-up jokes, re-enacting them for an entire day, joke after joke. On the first day there will also be a small performance: a slapstick number conceived by the artists Gabriel Lester and Loris Greaud, suggested by Raimundas Malasauskas, a well-known Lithuanian curator: monochrome paintings hanging on gallery walls, all of them falling to the floor at a certain point.

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